One of the reasons why I started this blog at the start of Green Day’s tour last year was their sense of performance: how they perform, their synergy with the audience, and how the audience reacted to their performance. I saw Green Day for the first time live at a crazy show in Central Park in May 2009 and I was blown away by their interaction with the audience.
One of the primary reasons why I enjoyed going to so many Green Day shows this year is that they encompass the kind of performance that I love, a sort of experimental theater of music that directly engaged the audience and demanded their participation. The basis of experimental theater attempts to renegotiate the connection of the audience with the performer by breaking down the traditional view of how theater is presented. It actively engages the audience in the performance by directly confronting them and demolishing the traditional and invisible “fourth wall” separating performers and audience. One of my favorite actors who successfully connected with their audience in such a way was the monologist, Spalding Gray. Gray was a member one of the premiere experimental troupes from the 1960s, the Performance Group and a founding member of probably the most successful experimental theater company of them all, the still running Wooster Group, whose members include Kate Valk and Willem Dafoe.
Not all performance demands the crazed punk-influence interaction of a Green Day show, of course. A good performance, however, captivates an audience and engages their mind and imagination. Gray’s monologue performances were simple: he sat behind a table in front of a microphone with a glass of water and his script placed before him. Once he started his monologue, he would take you on a trip, to Cambodia, to New York, to his mother’s suicide, to a ski trip, to the inner workings of his mind and emotions. How he broke that fourth wall was directly talking to the audience, looking them straight in the eye, and divulging his most intimate fears and emotions, many of which the audience could relate to within themselves.
Spalding Gray – Swimming to Cambodia
Gray’s most successful monologue performance was based on his time filming the 1984 film, The Killing Fields, which depicted the experiences of three journalists reporting from Cambodia during the horrific war and subsequent genocide that occurred in that country under the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s. Gray had a small role in the film as an American diplomat. Gray’s monologue, Swimming to Cambodia, told the tale of his time in Thailand with the film’s actors and crew, and delves into his life with his future wife as well. The monologue was made into a film in 1987, directed by Jonathan Demme.
Gray was a master storyteller and who doesn’t like a good story? Unfortunately, his life story ended tragically. After suffering injuries from a car accident in Ireland in 2001, Gray succumbed to the depression that dogged him during his life, and he committed suicide by jumping off of the Staten Island ferry as it crossed from Manhattan to Staten Island in 2004.
I’m a former performer who studied experimental theater and also created and performed several one-woman shows. Spalding Gray was one of my heroes. I loved his work and was devastated when he died. I was lucky to see two of his monologues, Monster in a Box and It’s a Slippery Slope. I’m also an archivist and read today in the New York Times Artsbeat blog that Gray’s archive has been acquired by the Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin. The Ransom Center is one of the most excellent repositories of archives in art, film, and theater, and a few years ago acquired the prop and script collection of actor Robert DeNiro. The Center will now hold Gray’s original working notebooks [IMAGE], diaries, correspondence, cassettes and videos of his performances. Reading the Ransom Center’s description of the collection, it’s an incredible archive of an incredible performer. On the whole, though, while I’m happy that the Center now has this incredible archive of Gray’s work, I wish that we still had Spalding Gray himself. His death was such a tragedy and I miss his voice. Luckily, his archive will keep his voice alive.